Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Asakusa Hagoita ichi 浅草羽子板市

December 18th

Just a very quick post - yesterday I, along with hundreds of others, crowded into the grounds of Sensoji temple in Asakusa, for the annual Hagoita (Battledore) fair. Hagoita are paddles for playing a kind of badminton-type game, called hanetsuki. The hagoita on sale are strictly ornamental, though. They're believed to bring good luck for the new year, and are usually decorated with kabuki actors, but popular actors, sportspeople and anime characters are common too. They cost upwards of 2,000 although you can get painted ones for a little less.

To be honest, there were very few people buying (a friend tells me it's a true marker of consumer confidence - if no one is buying hagoita, it's a bad year generally, for retailers). There were hundreds of middle aged and old folks with expensive cameras snapping away, and the stall holders didn't seem to mind. When someone does buy a hagoita, you'll know, because the sellers and buyers (and the crowd around them) all do the special Edo style 3-3-3-1 clap. You'll hear it at rakugo performances too. It's called ippon tejime. The 'leader' calls "iyoo" and everyone responds with sets of 3 and then 1 clap. 3 x 3 adds up to 9 (see, I paid attention in maths class!) which in Japanese is ku. It also sounds like "pain" or "stress". The kanji for ku or kyu is 九. A single clap, 'da' is like an extra stroke added to the kanji, turning ku to maru 丸 or in other words, stress and pain is finished. Phew, sorry that was a clunky explanation, but I hope you get the idea!

The guys at the hagoita stalls are remarkably patient as everyone snaps away.

I think these were decorated by a local art school. There were some great and bizarre designs.

This one was based on the famous Hiroshige ukiyo-e. It would make a great, though pricey, souvenir of Asakusa.

Asakusa is always a jolly place to hang out, but when these Edo-era fairs are on, you can expect to see lots of folks in happi coats, local geisha posing and strolling shamisen players. I avoid the place on weekends, but the back streets are always nice and feel quite local. It's not just a tourist area; I go there to pick up accessories and sheet music for my shamisen, and when I wanted a yukata, I got one made to fit in Asakusa (quite an experience, as the store owner, in her 90's, barely reached my hip. Getting measured was a challenge!). The back streets and arcades are also full of retro Showa-era cafes and cheap restaurants. It has a real, downtown, working class feel.

Geisha photo op.

You'll find the real Showa spirit around here. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Yuzu and touji ゆず&冬至

As we hurtle towards Christmas with the stress of bonenkai (end of year parties), presents to buy and nengajo (New Year’s cards) to send, not to mention the stress of Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas” on endless repeat, it’s no surprise that we’ve entered flu season. I’ve managed to avoid a cold up till now this year, but the cold, dry weather, plus the sardine can atmosphere (in crowdedness and sometimes in smell) of the commuter trains, means I finally succumbed last week.

When I first visited Japan and saw people in paper surgical masks, I thought it was bizarre. Then, when I noticed that people with colds basically contained those coughs and sneezes inside their masks, I started to appreciate them. Now, if someone starts hacking up a lung on the subway without a mask, I tend to give them the evil eye, along with the rest of the passengers (coughing quietly into your hanky is borderline acceptable). But I swore I’d never use one. Even when the whole country was freaking out about swine flu, I refused to wear one. Then I got a bad cold and my husband urged me to wear a mask – when sleeping. Crazy! It felt hot and uncomfortable and with a stuffy nose, it seemed even harder to breathe. A doctor friend explained that cold viruses thrive in cold, dry places – which is why they live long and prosper on metal grab bars and plastic handles in trains and buses. By wearing a mask, you keep your nose and throat warm and moist, and inhospitable for cold bugs. This year I’ve become a convert. And I’ve noticed I cough less, as my throat doesn’t get so dry and scratchy. It also keeps your face warm on a frosty day, and lazy friends tell me its a great way to cover up if you couldn’t be bothered with makeup or have a cold sore or....shhhh... pash rash. So now I look like a freaky Halloween nurse. Laugh all you want, but I beat this cold in 4 days.

Unicharm's latest commercial for face masks.

Another weapon against colds is yuzu. It’s a rather rough and lumpy looking citrus fruit, that’s become quite trendy around the world. You might know it from such hit products as 'ponzu'. It tastes like something between what we’d call a bush lemon in Australia, a grapefruit and a lime. A lot of yuzu trees only get fruit every other year, so it’s a bit expensive. It comes into its rich yellow colour at the end of autumn, so it tastes great right now. Like any citrus fruit, it has plenty of vitamin C. It tastes a bit milder than lemon, so it’s great in sore-throat drinks and a popular flavour for "nodo ame" or throat lozenges. For a drink, mix yuzu juice and grated peel, ginger, honey and hot water. Or, use yuzu marmalade. I got a jar from a friend from Miyazaki; it’s a specialty of her hometown. She told me to stir a big teaspoonful into hot water or even black tea, to make a good throat soother. Of course, it's also nice on toast!

Ripe yuzu 

Delicious! Makes a great sweetener for tea.

Yuzurin is a mascot in Gifu-ken, which grows a lot of yuzu.

Yuzu is also used in the bath in winter, to ward off colds (and the smell of a bath full of yuzu is very uplifting). It’s traditional to make a yuzu bath on December 21st  (touji),  the longest day of the year (the bath is called touji yu). Most public baths and onsen offer a yuzu bath around this time. Of course, you can throw a few in the bathwater at home, or use one of the many yuzu-scented bath salts. It's also traditional to eat pumpkin on touji, for good luck, along with other vegetables with the letter 'n' (pumpkin - kabocha can also be written as nankin), like daikon and ninjin. A lot of people also eat azuki gayu, or rice porridge with azuki beans to protect them from evil spirits on touji. I think the bottom line is: take a nice hot bath and eat lots of healthy vegetables in winter! Sounds good to me. Now that I'm over my cold, I intend to enjoy other yuzu treats like yuzushu - yuzu liqueur! Since I can't get my hands on any of my grandma's homemade kumquat brandy over here, yuzushu is the next best thing. 

Yuzu yu at a public bath

I cheat and use bath salts

On the rocks, neat, or with soda - it's all good.

The other Yuzu - a popular Japanese band, who like to pun on their name.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Light up the night

December 1st

It's getting colder every day, and it feels like we're speeding towards the end of the year. It's the last chance to enjoy the autumn colours before the trees lose their leaves and the wind becomes icy and bitter (going to see the Christmas illuminations calls for heavy winter gear and a portable hot coffee or cocoa. How some of my friends manage the all night New Year's party at Disneyland is beyond me).

I'm often in Komagome for work, so last week I swung through Rikugien gardens on the way home. It's a lovely Edo period strolling garden with a man-made lake and tea houses dotted around. In Spring, it's popular for its beautiful shidare zakura, or weeping cherry blossom tree. In Autumn, it's full of red and orange maples. The park usually closes at 5pm (last entry at 4.30pm) but for a few weeks in Autumn and Spring, they do a "light-up", highlighting the beautiful trees, and staying open till 9pm.

There was a mix of camera enthusiasts with their tripods and couples going for a romantic after-work stroll. All the tea houses were open, offering seasonal sweets. On a weeknight, it was surprisingly uncrowded. It only costs 300 yen to enter (if you arrived around 4pm, you'd experience the sunset as well). I love Komagome  - it's a quiet, slightly expensive residential area, which means it has lots of lovely shops selling kimono, flowers or wagashi (check out Usagiya on the way to the park) and indigo-dyed goods. There are heaps of inviting little bistros for dinner, too.

The light-up at Rikugien is only on until December 9th - next Sunday. During the light-up period, the park gate nearest Komagome station is open. Usually, you have to walk around to the other side of the park (where there is an Anpan Man shop - which, if you have kids, might be a good thing or a bad thing). If you want to take good pictures, I'd recommend a tripod, because it is DARK. But, I managed these shots with my tiny digital camera, holding my breath.

You can see a live camera view of the park here - handy if you want to check the progress of autumn colours or cherry blossoms!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Golden ginko!

OMG! I haven't updated in, like, forever! Recently, the paid writing work has kind of sapped the motivation to do the unpaid writing work. Poor excuse, sorry. But, I've still been out, enjoying the autumn weather, as the mercury creeps ever-downward. So, I have a stack of pictures, but very little to say.

And so, I bring you, ginko trees. I've been reading Rurousha's ginko updates, just waiting for the full golden glory. And I think, at least in Tokyo, this week is it! I had never been to Ichou Namiki Dori - literally 'row of ginko trees street', even though it's so easy to get to. Just walk between Gaienmae and Aoyama Itchome station and you'll see the blaze of yellow. This part of Aoyama features in Haruki Murakami's novels, like "Hard Boiled Wonderland & the End of the World," and "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running". And doesn't he like a long title! "IQ84" is quite an achievement in terms of brevity.

Anyway, on to the trees. That's what we're here for!

A symphony of yellow! You know how sometimes when you download your photos, you're tempted to play around with the colour balance, maybe warm it up - make it more saturated... go on, admit you do it too! Well, with these trees, there was no need. They were yellower than The Simpsons, without any need for enhancement. Go there. This week.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Kaki かき

A glut of persimmons

So, I cheated - not many colourful leaves around Tokyo yet, but I went to Karuizawa in the mountains .

Autumn is here! It seems to have arrived a bit late this year, but the temperature plunged last weekend and we got out the hot carpet (like an electric blanket for the floor), and set up the kotatsu. A kotatsu is a table with a heater under it. You cover the table with a blanket and snuggle under it (yes, your back gets cold... you can wear a hanten - padded jacket - or a good ol' fleecy hoodie.) Actually, we don't use the heater part of our kotatsu, which tends to cook your legs if it gets too hot; the hot carpet and blanket is enough.

Last year, this old house and its kaki (persimmon) tree were all new to me. I didn't know what to do with kaki, and in my imagination they were very astringent. I found out we have the sweet kind, but not knowing when to pick them, most got over-ripe and became feasts for birds and insects. My mother in law wasn't well enough to prune the tree for years and the branches had become too close and the fruits crowded together. In summer I gave it a random hack (the wrong time to prune, I'm sure), but it resulted in bigger, more robust fruit this time.

Some of our kaki, which the birds and ants didn't get to first. Not as pretty as store bought, but they taste good.

After giving a bunch to family, I still didn't know what to do with our kaki. They're sweet, but to be honest, there's little flavour; just sugar. Then, I saw a show on TV (do you watch "Kenmin Show"? It's a fun look at different regions with their customs, particular foods and dialects; it's surprising that Japan's regions are still so different), dealing with Niigata's specialties.

In Niigata, it seems, kaki are cut in half, dipped in sake and stored in a plastic bag for about a week. I decided to try it. I had a cup of cheap sake (not cooking sake - it's salted!), which I didn't want to drink (sometimes you can win a 'one cup Ozeki" sake or some other random product at the konbini) and a glut of kaki I didn't really want to eat. But put them together and....yum!

I cut up some kaki and drowned them in sake for about 30 minutes, then put the fruit in a bag, with just a little of the sake. After a few days in the refrigerator, the fruit has become beautifully translucent; the colour has deepened from a flat coral to a rich amber.

Before - average, sweet kaki pieces, soaking in sake

Into the refrigerator for a week - or a few days if you're impatient!

After - they almost look like fruit jellies and they taste better!

And they taste fantastic. The sake is just strong enough to give some depth to the fruit, without overwhelming it. If you soaked it in brandy, which works beautifully for strong fruits like oranges, the kaki would taste of nothing more than brandy. The cheap sake is now sweeter and the fruit more delicious. It would be great with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but I like it best on its own - just a few pieces of delicately sweet fruit to finish off a rich winter meal. I made a big pot of tonjiru - a rich miso soup with pork, konyaku, daikon, sweet potato and because they're in season - heaps of maitake mushrooms. The drunken kaki were the perfect finale.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Higanbana 彼岸花


Finally, last week I got to see the amazing red flowers, "higanbana" out at Kinchakuda, a park in Hidaka, Saitama. I'd been worried that the flowers would be decimated by several typhoons that came roaring up the coast last week, but they were still going strong. In fact, there were a lot of new buds, so I think the flowers will still look amazing this week.

Getting there is a bit of a chore. It really is easiest to go via the Seibu Ikebukuro line from Ikebukuro. Although I live in Saitama, it took several changes to finally get to Koma, the station nearest the park. I didn't need to worry about directions. There was a booth outside the station, decked out in red (higanbana red is "the" colour of Hidaka city), with free maps. But I just followed the genki oldies with their cameras. I swear, the over-60 crowd are singularly responsible for the continued welfare of Canon. The amount of expensive gear was amazing. About 85% of the crowd were probably retired, but there was a strange subset of Akihabara types - a few cosplayers, some gothic-cute kids and a guy taking pro-style shots of his doll. When I googled higanbana-themed animations, it seems "Higanbana no Saku Yoru ni", with ghosts and a lot of higanbana imagery, is very popular. But I could be wrong. Given the flower's association with graves (it blooms around "higan", when you visit ancestor's graves, so it often grows around graves) and tales of star crossed lovers, it really is quite a "goth" flower. And it's red. And it looks a bit like a spider.

It's an easy stroll from the station, and the route through little back lanes is lined with local stalls, selling home made jams, plants, chestnuts and branches of bright red things which I found out were "red eggplants". I didn't believe it at first, since they look like a tomato crossed with a chilli. But Google says they're real. I decided to leave the stalls till my return to the station, not wanting to carry an armload of autumn produce all over the park.

Red eggplants for sale.

Just follow the crowds

One of the local stalls

These handy markers show you the way

The approach to the park, through veggie patches.

Scarecrows guarding the rice

The air was heavy with the scent of kinmokusei (sweet osmanthus) which I love - it's a tiny orange flower, so well hidden in its trees and shrubs that you smell it but can't see it. It has a lovely sweet, sharp smell, not unlike freesia or daphne. Unfortunately, it was popular in the 80's as a toilet spray fragrance, so for a lot of Japanese of a certain age, it has those associations. I have the same feeling about hyacinths - a gorgeous flower with a really fresh, springtime scent, but when I was a kid, it was a popular, cheap smell in public toilets. I just can't wear the fragrance or smell the flowers without thinking "hmm... toilet".

This is a huge kinmokusei 'tree'. Intoxicating.

The higanbana at Kinchakuda are like a red carpet under the trees, next to a river. People were enjoying picnics, painting, taking thousands of photos and - this being Japan - shopping! There was a rest area with food stalls and local craft stalls. I got sucked in to buying some local sake, after trying a few. oops.

Way too many photos of flowers coming up...

Painting by the river

Hello dolly


The sake shop.

On my way back to the station, I strolled through the cosmos field. It was lovely and wild. Cosmos tends to just range across the ground like a beautiful weed. People were gathering armfuls while red dragonflies darted around overhead. Perhaps it was all the flowers, or the unseasonably warm, yet comfortable weather, but everyone was in such a good mood. I completely forgot the hassle of getting there, and it felt a million miles from the concrete and crowds of Tokyo. Japanese friends often talk about the need for "green therapy" - getting out into the trees to refresh their senses. I think I understand, now.


Blending in

Kinchakuda costs a measly 200 yen (but if you're really cheap, you can look over the fence for free. The cosmos field is also free). The easiest way to get there is from Ikebukuro Station. Take the Seibu Ikebukuro express to Hanno station and change to a local train to Koma (you want to be going in the direction of Chichibu). It costs 510 yen each way and takes an hour. I went via Kawagoe and finished the afternoon with a stroll through the Kawagoe "koedo" historic area.

I was cajoled into buying an "autumn basket" from one of the local ladies, filled with cute little corn, a marrow of some kind, a chestnut still in its spiky cover, those red eggplants and some red chillies. She also threw in a few higanbana so, not a bad deal, really.